Keeper Tally Hall emerges as Houston's talisman

[MLS SPOTLIGHT: Tally Hall] Ten saves in a game? Done that a few times. What's next?

In his first year as a starter for the Houston Dynamo, Tally Hall followed up a regular-season in which he played every minute by repelling 10 shots as Houston downed Philadelphia, 2-1, in the first leg of their conference semifinals series Sunday. That's a big number, but he’s already done it. Twice.

Though Hall, 26, didn’t play any league games in 2009 and only five last year, Coach Dominic Kinnear groomed him with appearances in SuperLiga, Concacaf Champions League, and U.S. Open Cup. Those games accounted for his previous 10-save displays, as well as a goal he scored against Isidro Metapan two years ago when one of his long kicks wound up in the net.

“I try not to remind anyone of that goal,” he laughs. “Brian Ching tackling the goalkeeper and the ball bouncing in. Just kick it up to Brian Ching and good things happen. Shock, right? Usually he touches it before it goes in, this time he just cleared the keeper out of the way. It was one of those flukes. I wasn’t trying to do it, so I don’t talk about it too much.”

What he does like to talk about is his team’s strong surge during the second half of the season that straightened out a season veering off-course.  There’s a long list of reasons: a great, possibly MVP-caliber season for Brad Davis; a midfield core strengthened by the additions of Adam Moffat and Luiz Camargo; a breakthrough season for Corey Ashe at left back; and a front line bolstered by a healthy Ching and revived Calen Carr, acquired in a trade with Chicago.

“This year we’ve gotten a good mix of players coming in and guys developing,” says Hall, who took over the starter’s job when Pat Onstad retired at age 42.  “Corey Ashe behind Brad has helped out the back line, Adam and Luiz have come in and held down the middle of the park for us. The back line is on its best run of form right now.

“Right now, I’d rather have Calen Carr on our team. He’s been excellent for us. Everywhere on the field I think we’re kind of hitting our stride and we’re confident in the way we can play.”

In his 34 games, Hall allowed 1.21 goals per game and recorded six shutouts;  maybe not Onstad quality, but not bad for a keeper who for two years couldn’t get off the bench at his Danish club to play in a first-team game.

“At the beginning of the year, we probably had him tested a little too much but he played some great games, especially at Seattle and at New York,” says Kinnear of the former San Diego State All-American. “When we weren’t playing our best he kept us in games. Then there was a point in the season where I think as every team does as well as every
player, you have your ups and downs.  I think the last couple of games for us he’s played pretty well, especially on the road. He’s had a couple of shutouts in Dallas and in Portland where I think Tally played particularly well.”

He didn’t get the shutout in Philly but he and the Dynamo did get the win and a one-goal cushion for the second leg.  That advantage is mitigated by the fact Philly has won both league meetings in Houston the past two years, with their encounter in this year’s home opener especially frustrating for the Dynamo.

“That’s a team that’s always going to find some chances and we’ve seen the way they defend this year,” says Hall of the Union, which finished just a point behind the second-place Dynamo in the Eastern Conference.

“They scored early on us the first game at home, and for 85 minutes, we threw everything we had at them, and they didn’t break down. Philly’s going to work as hard as they need to get the job done, and we need to have that same mentality and throw it back at them.”

Hall didn’t get much time his freshman season at SDSU and starting as a sophomore in 2004 can best be described as humbling. He gave up 34 goals in 19 games. Then two things happened. The Aztecs moved from the Mountain-Pacific Sports Federation to the Pacific-10, and in this tougher competition a new Tally Hall emerged. He allowed just 10 goals and posted 12 shutouts in 19 games.

His work and sacrifice, plus the influence of head coach Lev Kirshner and goalkeepers coach Matt Hall, transformed him into an All-American.

“I stopped wave boarding, I stopped snowboarding, I stopped all extracurricular activities in college to focus on soccer,” Tally Hall says.  “It started there but it never really ends.”

He repeated as an all-American the following year and the Galaxy drafted him, but he summoned his adventuresome self again. Like many Americans, he found a small Scandinavian club – Esjberg in Denmark – to launch his pro career. He enjoyed the life there, but soccer never got off the ground. In two years he didn’t get a single first-team game, and signed with Houston in 2009.

However, on a trip to Aalborg, he saw what the right American in the right environment can accomplish.

“When [Danny Califf] played for Aalborg, they won the league,” says Hall. “Our team went up there to play and they rocked us, 3-0. I’m not seeing many American faces in my day-to-day activities, so I stay on the pitch until he’s done thanking the fans. I’m on the sidelines and he’s got the entire supporters’ section, which is like half the stadium, on his fingertips.

“They’re all shouting, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”, and he sprints 30 yards, jumps up, and starts pumping his first, and the whole place goes crazy. It was something I’ve never seen before."

He will face Califf again Thursday in the second leg, and will remember in that home opener this year, it was a Califf goal that carried the Union to its 1-0 win.  Advancing to the conference finals would top his personal achievement in July, when he played for the All-Star Team against Manchester United.  His boyhood idol was there: as a native of Gig Harbor, Wash., who else could it be but the local lad who went global?

“There’s my hero right there,” he says. “Growing up, Kasey Keller was the man. He’s always going to be a legend in my mind. There was a Showcase tournament when I was 16 and that’s the first time I ever saw him. In my parent’s house I still have a shirt with his signature on it because a couple of us got the courage to go up and ask him.

“At the All-Star Game, people were saying to me, ‘That sucks, you don’t get to play a full half, you’re gonna split time with Keller,’ and I said, ‘You don’t understand. This is still a pretty big deal for me just to talk with him, man.”

Keller’s season, and his pro career, ended Wednesday night when the Sounders were eliminated by Real Salt Lake. Hall hopes to someday also wear the USA jersey, and on Thursday he’ll play a game that could help define his prospects.

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